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The History of Civilization

July 18, 2007 Article Start Page 1 of 10 Next

[Gamasutra is proud to be partnering with the IGDA's Preservation SIG to present detailed official histories of each of the first ten games voted into the Digital Game Canon. The Canon "provides a starting-point for the difficult task of preserving this history inspired by the role of that the U.S. National Film Registry has played for film culture and history", and Matteo Bittanti, Christopher Grant, Henry Lowood, Steve Meretzky, and Warren Spector revealed the inaugural honorees at GDC 2007. This latest piece follows the carrer of industry icon Sid Meier as he established himself as one of the most important contributors to PC gaming with the iconic turn based strategy epic Civilization.]

By 1990, Sid Meier had cranked out flight simulator games for as long as he knew how, at the request of his boss and partner. But Meier's life, and the world of computer games around him, had changed so much since the two men entered the market in 1982. Meier felt the undeniable urge to broaden his horizons as a designer; it was time to move on to greater things. Despite considerable opposition within the very company he co-founded, Meier broke the status quo and changed the course of computer strategy games forever. As the naysayers sank in his wake, he engineered lasting success and achieved design immortality with an epic game based on nothing less than the history of mankind.

One More Turn

Few games are as addictively fun and as infinitely re-playable as Civilization, a turn-based historical strategy game where a player single-handedly guides the development of a civilization over the course of millennia, from the stone age to the space age. The game feels uncannily accurate, as if it actually represents the way the world could have unfolded if the course of history were nudged over just a bit. Civilization's designer, Sid Meier, somehow distilled, condensed, and codified the rules of humanity's post-agriculture development into a three-megabyte IBM PC computer game, with shockingly good results. For that achievement, many critics recognize Sid Meier as one of the greatest software designers in history.

Meier's historical classic finds itself in good company among gaming innovators like Tetris, SimCity, and Rogue with the inclusion of random play elements that make each sitting unique. Civilization marks especially high in this regard: between random map generation, multiple ways to win, up to 15 additional computer-controlled civilizations, and seemingly endless combinations of paths to pursue, Civilization's emergent gameplay results in a whole new gaming experience every time. "The fact that there are so many different ways to play, and that they all seem interesting and fun, leads you to want to play again after you finish the game," said Meier in an interview.

Playing Meier's classic again is always tempting, assuming that we've actually eaten since sitting down for the last game, perhaps six or ten hours before. Civilization's addictiveness is legendary. So much so that it even has a name: the "one more turn" phenomenon. While playing Civ, there's always something cooking in the pot, something to look forward to. In your next move, a unit or building could be completed, a new city founded, or an exciting technology developed. "There was never really a good place to stop playing," says Meier. "I've often found myself playing and then realized I'm late for a meeting. So I've been exposed to the phenomenon myself."

How did Meier conceive of and create such a powerful, yet deceptively simple simulation of world events? To understand the full story on this incredible game, we'll first have to take a quick journey back into the early days of computer gaming.

The Birth Of MicroProse

Sid Meier met Bill Stealey in 1982 while they both worked at General Instrument, a large electronic component manufacturer. Meier, a talented young minicomputer programmer for GI, had recently acquired his first personal computer, an Atari 800, and was already creating primitive games for the machine in BASIC. John Wilbur "Bill" Stealey, a management consultant that held a side career as a fighter pilot with the U.S. Air Force Reserve, had also recently bought an Atari 800 to play Star Raiders.

The two crossed paths through the company and started chatting. Stealey shared his old Air Force stories, while Meier talked of his coincidental plan to write a flight simulator game for the Atari. As a die-hard fighter pilot, Stealey's interest was inextricably piqued, and he proposed going into business with Meier. The exuberant, outgoing Stealey (nicknamed "Wild Bill" by his friends) would cover the marketing and administrative duties, while the quiet, introspective Meier would write the games. It was a classic pairing of complementary personalities; neither man could have done it alone, but together, they formed a perfect team. The pair founded MicroProse Software in 1982 with Stealey as president, a position he would hold throughout remainder of the decade.

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